Monday, March 17, 2008

Are you an Expert?

By Karen D. Swim

Last week I found myself thinking about expertise. My thoughts began with my frustration with self-proclaimed experts who are effective marketers that simply package old ideas with flashy packaging and high price tags. However, as often happens my internal questions often converge with the external world to provide me with not only answers but also more questions.

As I was grappling with the question of expertise, someone in my LinkedIn network posted a question asking, “How do you know when you are an expert?” It was a different perspective but one that aligned with my own thoughts during the week. I read the answers and while many were interesting and thought provoking, none seemed to satisfy by increasing need to know “Who is an Expert?”

The answer that brought the greatest amount of satisfaction appeared on, of all places, my daily Freakonomics calendar “When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good? According to K. Anders Ericsson a psychology professor who studies expert performance, what we think of as ‘talent’ is vastly overrated. It is ‘deliberate practice,’ Ericsson argues, that is the real key.”

Ericsson’s book Toward A General Theory of Expertise: Prospects and Limits offers a fascinating insight into expertise. Ericsson writes, “Expert performance is primarily a reflection of acquired skill resulting from the accumulation of domain-specific knowledge and methods during many years of training and practice rather than special innate talent. Confronted with universal limits of human information processing concerning memory capacity and speed of processing, expert performers are found to be able to acquire similar types of skills to circumvent these limits.”

Experts are able to perform at higher levels. While that may have some element of innate talent, the deliberate practice is what elevates them from merely talented to expert. I would add that passion is likely the driving force that leads to deliberate practice.

In marketing, we may be quick to use the “expert” label. After all, billing someone as the “industry’s leading expert” sounds better than “cool guy or girl who knows a lot.” However, I would argue that you do not have to be an expert to be successful or even credible to your audience.

We have become enamored with expert status. The internet has certainly leveled the playing field by making information accessible to everyone. When you do a thing enough times in cyberspace you’re elevated to “expert.”

I would rather purchase services from someone who was passionately pursuing excellence in their profession than someone who simply labeled himself or herself an expert because it sounds good in marketing copy.

The passionate pursuit of excellence… hmm sounds suspiciously like the “deliberate practice” that Ericsson writes about in his discussion of expertise. My search was borne out of frustration but the journey to the truth was enlightening. From now on, I will measure an expert by their actions and not their words. What about you? Are you an expert in your niche? Do you desire to be? What is your standard for measuring expertise? I am interested in hearing your perspective.


Brad Shorr said...

Karen, thought provoking post. In many cases, expertise is relative. For instance, I am a business blog consultant, and I offer expertise to executives who are just learning about blogs or have limited knowledge. To them, I really am an expert and can help them reach a higher level of understanding. However, in a room full of full time bloggers, I doubt if many would consider me an expert. I think if you're just honest about what you know (and don't know), people will know whether you offer them expertise.

Words For Hire said...

@Brad, what a great point Brad. I enjoy your blog and do consider you to be an expert! Again, it goes back to you deliberately practicing in an area for which you clearly have passion. You have amassed a great deal of knowledge which you share with those who will benefit and you keep seeking to learn more. And as you noted it's better to be honest about what you know and what you don't. We all have our limitations and people do respect honesty. Thanks for dropping by Brad!


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